Over four thousand workers at 46 not for profit nursing homes in New Brunswick voted 90% in favour of a strike on March 7. The workers, who have been without a contract since 2016, rejected the 1% increase the New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes had put on the table, and issued a strike notice March 8. After a 24 hour strike notice was sent to the 46 nursing homes,, the provincial government intervened, issuing a pause on a decision that had deemed the Nursing Homes Essential Services Act unconstitutional, effectively halting their right to strike.
CUPE New Brunswick’s ‘Breaking the Mandate – Bargaining Forward’ campaign is focused on coordinating bargaining efforts and engaging in mass action to obtain better wages. The past decade of the provincial government has been characterized by wage restraint that has not kept up with the cost of living increases, and forced workers to accept freezes or 1% increases. As the population continues to grow and the need for senior care expands, there has been a greater strain on the system that has overburdened workers, which has led to high rates of injury and burnout.
CUPE’s Council of Nursing Home Unions (NBCNHU) represents licensed practical nurses, resident attendants, dietary workers, laundry workers,some clericals and other attendants in the nursing homes. Over 4000 workers have voted to go on strike as a last resort, after years of demonstrations, lobbying, and outreach in their communities. Nursing home workers have seen an increase in workload further complicated by recruitment issues and lack of retention due to low wages and short staffing.
Nicole Munn has been working in nursing homes as a personal support worker for the past 15 years. At her nursing home in Saint Stephen, 94% of workers voted YES on the strike mandate.
“For the past couple years now, every morning I get up it’s become almost like an acceptance. I may get hurt today because I’m working so fast and multitasking. It could happen, but it’s almost like i’ve accepted it as part of the job,” said Munn. “It really and truly should never be part of the job, to expect to go get injured”
On March 9, CUPE notified the employer that they were in a legal position to strike. The government of New Brunswick was granted a 10-day ‘stay order’ which prohibited workers from striking. The decision, (which occurred without CUPE lawyers) was done through an ex parte meeting, which allows a judge to decide on a matter without requiring all parties to be present. In 2018, an arbitrator ruled that the New Brunswick’s ‘Nursing Homes Essential Services Act’, the law claiming that nursing home workers were essential services interfered with the constitutional right to strike. Despite this, the stay was granted until a judicial review could be completed on the ruling.
In a press release issued by the government of New Brunswick, the government has said that because nursing home workers are not currently essential services, it means “a significant majority of nursing home care and support workers could walk off the job, putting nursing home residents at risk within a very short period of time. That’s why the Province is introducing legislation to designate nursing home care and support workers an essential service: To protect the health and safety of seniors living in nursing homes.”
Employers in nursing homes have taken this opportunity to discuss ‘contingency plans’ asking families to help run the operations, undermining the workers ability to withhold their labour and better their working conditions, while attempting to divide families and staff. Managers have threatened lockouts, and stirred up fear among patients and families. Workers are taking action to better their workplace for themselves and for their patients
“There’s no other place that i would rather be than caring for them. It’s the other stuff that makes it hard. Not being able to come home, and living paycheque to paycheque,” said Munn.
In Moncton, workers have been doing outreach with patients and their families outside work hours, and encouraging them to talk to their MLAs.
“The family support has been phenomenal, and we wanted to let them know that we know they’re with us and we appreciate it so much.” says Bev Harper, LPN Rehab support worker. “Families see the working conditions, they see that we’re doing our best, and understand what we’re going through.”
Nursing home workers fight back
In the past month, the NBCNHU CUPE locals have arranged for 46 independent strike votes, with the overall strike mandate of 94% of workers in favour of a strike. Workers are angry that the government has intervened in their constitutional right to strike, and see the 10 day period as a stall tactic in order to designate nursing home workers as essential services.
Members have started a grassroots campaign called ‘Where’s Dorothy’? referencing Social Development Minister Dorothy Sheppard’s absence at the bargaining table. Workers have continued to mobilize throughout the stay, organizing rallies in front of constituency offices, and building upon the momentum of the overwhelming strike mandate.
The care system is in crisis, and has been since 1992, when nursing home workers went out on illegal strike in protest of the McKenna government’s attack on healthcare workers. 2001 was last walk out, when workers demanded more hours of care for their patients, protesting staff injury rates and burnout.
Because of the mass mobilization of thousands of nurses, the motion was rescinded and nursing home workers right to strike was restored through a ruling on Monday, March 18, rejecting the government’s proposal to extend the stay order.
As of Monday March 25, there has been no financial offer made to the union. In a press conference yesterday, NBCNHU called for the government to send the remaining issues to binding arbitration. Sometime today, opposition members will be voting on opposition Liberal members non-binding motion in the legislature calling for Premier Higgs to respect the request for binding arbitration.
Implications for the labour movement
The government’s’ use of this legal tactic in New Brunswick is alarming for a number of reasons, and could have dire implications for the broader labour movement. The use of future stay orders to halt strikes could potentially give other governments the precedent to attack the constitutional right to strike, and to free and fair collective bargaining.
While Justice Paulette Garnett rescinded all motions and ruled in favour of upholding the right to strike for nursing home workers, the government have applied immediately for an appeal. A stay of two days was granted, and the appeal was heard on Thursday, March 21. The ruling on judge Garnett’s decision will be heard April 17, leaving workers without the ability to strike unless the government agrees to go to binding arbitration.
At this time, nursing home workers in New Brunswick still do not have the right to strike, and cannot access binding arbitration. While attacks on the right to bargain have scared workers, there’s a recognition that has been built throughout the past month that if workers are pushed to go out on strike, they’ll do so.
“We’re still in the nursing home sector because we care. Nobody takes on this job if they don’t care,” says Harper. “We really don’t want to walk out on our residents, we want the government to realize that this is a situation that needs to be addressed, and that it needs to be addressed now.”
To support the nursing home workers, solidarity letters can be sent to Sharon Teare, President of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions at firstname.lastname@example.org